Karen VanderWerff specializes in employment and occupational health and safety law. Karen counsels and represents employers on employment and policy matters, including charges of discrimination, employee discipline/termination, and federal health and safety compliance. As a former forensic scientist, she assists businesses that have experienced a catastrophic event and handles investigations into workplace discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
1. Tell us about your unique experience in testifying in over two dozen murder trials.
I was a firearms and tool mark examiner with the Illinois State Police crime lab for over seven years before joining Warner Norcross. I testified in numerous murder trials and was one of three women in the United States who held that position. I was a distinguished member of the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners and attended special training at the FBI Academy. As a firearms and tool mark examiner, I determined what firearm was used, at what distance and helped piece together the investigations.
2. Why did you change careers and why did you choose Warner Norcross?
I had reached the pinnacle in my career as a firearm and tool mark examiner, and I felt it was time for a new challenge. I worked full-time in my position with the Illinois State Police while I attended law school. I strongly believe that my prior experience is instrumental in my career now, because I conduct many internal investigations for clients. I chose to work for Warner Norcross because of its outstanding reputation and the work environment. Working at Warner allowed me to carve out my niche while providing me the flexibility to spend time with my family.
3. As an employment lawyer, what are your areas of expertise?
I counsel employers on hiring, firing, discipline, harassment, discrimination and retaliation issues. I really like knowing my clients. I tailor my advice to their core business philosophies and help them remain true to who they are. I also specialize in catastrophic events and workplace fatalities. I help clients navigate through MiOSHA and OSHA citations, audits and compliance issues.
4. What have been some of the more serious crisis management matters you have handled?
I’ve counseled clients through chemical releases in which the fire department takes over a company’s site and multiple government agencies get involved, such as MiOSHA, state fire marshals and the DEQ. I answer questions and help guide employers through issues that arise with employees, the government agencies, the media and the community. I’ve also counseled organizations through workplace fatalities and helped employers investigate the accident, address issues with employees and interact with the media. I make sure appropriate government agencies are provided with the right information and try to minimize any potential civil and criminal liability. I even assist employers in hiring crisis management counselors to help their employees deal with these types of events.
5. You were recently named the chair of the Warner Norcross Labor & Employment Law Practice Group. What are recent trends in this area of law and how is the law changing?
The change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration will significantly affect the enforcement of employment laws and regulations. We are already seeing the Trump administration back off from some Obama administration employment initiatives.
At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the employment laws are going away. Our clients continue to face legal claims and challenges from employees, unions and governmental agencies. Further, we are seeing states and local governments adopting additional laws affecting the workplace. All of this strains the resources of our clients’ HR teams, as they attempt to stay up-to-date and in compliance.